Our visits to tourist attractions like Jama Masjid or the Red Fort often reminded us that Westerners weren’t the only tourists in Delhi. There’s a middle-class India thriving far beyond Saket Citywalk Mall, and many of them are just as interested in their nation’s heritage sights as we are. Coming to Delhi from second- and third-tier cities around the region, these tourists have the same goal as we do: to take pictures of things they can’t see at home. But while our list includes sidewalk tailors, roadside shrines, and alley pigs, their list includes Western tourists.
Jenny and I are proud to possess the first white skin many Indians have ever seen in person. It was not unusual for a baby to suddenly be placed in our lap as we rested in a shaded area of a tourist sight, the mother posing her child for the picture without uttering a word to us. Nor was it unusual for mustachioed, middle-aged men to come up and start conversations that always culminated in photo requests. (“From which place?” they’d ask with a genuine interest never shown by jaded Saket Citywalkers. “You like India? Yes? Take picture?”)
Most entertaining of all were the gangs of college-age girls who’d crowd around us, giggling and stroking Jenny’s hair, giving us their email addresses and offering invitations to visit their hometowns.
Teenage boys rarely approached us directly, on the other hand, choosing instead to pretend to deeply scrutinize an SMS as pretext for holding their cameraphones at picture-snapping angles as they walked by. Except at Jama Masjid, where the teenage boys all loitered at the top of the mosque’s forty-meter minaret, waiting for their lookout to spot a female tourist entering the claustrophobic stairs that are barely wide enough for two people to pass. Then they’d file casually down the narrow stairwell as their victim went up, their hands just coincidentally held in perfect breast-brushing position.
At first we were quite offended by the photo requests, wondering how people could be so rude as to treat us like alley pigs or sidewalk tailors. Jenny made sport of teasing the men who approached her, agreeing to “take a picture” and then pulling out her own camera and snapping a shot after shot until the baffled men left her alone.
But as time went on, and our own photo album swelled with pictures of vegetable vendors, wandering sadhus, and streetside omelet makers, we realized our hypocrisy: if we found the people around us to be fascinating, beautiful, and photo-worthy—subjecting them to sudden evaluations of angle and light, followed by the sudden blink of our black lens and then our sudden disappearance without so much as a thank-you—it was morally dishonest not to accept ourselves as objects of equal interest.
We vowed to happily accept photo requests from that moment onward, putting broad grins on our faces while anybody who pleased put their arms around our shoulders and stared expressionlessly into their cameras. We made ourselves equally open to the cameraless people who just wanted to shake our hands, although they always seemed far more interested in shaking Jenny’s hands then my own.
Our experience came full circle when we realized how much more we liked it when people asked permission to take our photo than when they attempted paparazzi-style photos from afar. We decided to give our photographic subjects the same consideration: instead of suddenly stopping, snapping, and speeding off, we got in the habit of requesting permission for pictures, and then thanking people profusely and showing them the output on the screen. Not only did our interactions with people become more satisfying, but our photos got better as well.